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Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2018

Russian writer Varlam Shalamov spent 15 years, from 1937 to 1951, in a Soviet gulag (forced labor camp) for engaging in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities”. He wrote a book of short fiction about his experience called Kolyma Stories. He also wrote down 45 things he learned while in the gulag.

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

15. I realized that one can live on anger.

17. I understood why people do not live on hope — there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will — what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

26. I realized that you can achieve a great deal-time in the hospital, a transfer-but only by risking your life, taking beatings, enduring solitary confinement in ice.

30. I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.

44. I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization.